Posts Tagged ‘muni’

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The Central Subway is here… on the web

September 10th, 2019


 

Hot on the heels of my previous post about subway station plaques, it appears three new San Francisco subway stations are online: well, on the web, anyway.

Today I was making my way to Muni Metro and happened to pull up SF Muni Central on my phone to see if I had any chance of getting a train at a reasonable time. But something looked a bit off.

See, normally the SF Muni Central website displays a screenshot of the train positions in the subway. It’s part of the train control system and not very user friendly, but it’s easy enough to figure out once you’ve gotten used to it.

This time, a separate section appeared underneath the subway map…

 

 

It’s clearly a desktop window with the title “Line Overview.” But why? What does this even mean?

I’m going to make a wild assumption this is something we wouldn’t normally see: the user interface for the train control system. If you do a Google image search for the keywords “thales line overview” you’ll find slides with screenshots that look remarkably similar to this. Thales is the company that provides Muni’s train control, now that Thales owns a former division of Alcatel — it’s all very complicated.

 

 

But I’ve saved the best for last. On the bottom right is a new subway! Yes, it’s the yet-to-open Central Subway.

Following Muni’s convention of three letter platform designations with the first two letters indicating the name of the station, we have:

  • CT: Chinatown
  • US: Union Square
  • YB: Yerba Buena

The other two platforms at either end are presumably for maintenance purposes.

Now, obviously this isn’t finalized and probably not even meant to be shown to the public, but if this is the layout I’m already seeing two big problems.

  1. There’s only one place for trains to turn around at the end. We saw how poorly this worked with Embarcadero back in the day, with Muni eventually moving the turnback into the N-Judah extension that had room for more than one “scissor” turnback section. That could be a problem if a lot of people are using the subway to get to Warriors games, for example.
  2. The entire map seems flipped around. Conventionally Muni Metro has positioned outbound to inbound as right to left, but here it’s the opposite. Unless they intend Chinatown to be an outbound station, but that wouldn’t really make sense — inbound has always meant “towards downtown.” I hope that’s not how they’re going to label the stations, because that would be very confusing.

We’ll know more once the Central Subway finally opens. But as of now we don’t even have an official opening date yet.

 
Update: The bottom half of the image disappeared from SF Muni Central the next day.

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Every single BART plaque I could find in San Francisco

September 1st, 2019

“Always read the plaque” is the unofficial motto of one of my favorite podcasts, 99% Invisible. Following that advice, over the past months I’ve been tracking down every BART station plaque located within San Francisco as a scavenger hunt of sorts.

Conventional wisdom tells us there are eight BART stations in San Francisco, so there should be eight of these, right? Well… not exactly. Read on to find out why.
 

Embarcadero Station plaque

 
Embarcadero

Serves: BART, Muni Metro

For some reason BART didn’t originally plan on this station, making it (in a way) the first infill station in the BART system. It was a smart decision in the long run as it’s now surrounded by offices buildings, and the nearby waterfront is much nicer now than it was in the 70’s.

The plaque is well hidden in a hallway off to the side on the ticketing level where payphones were once located. I had to step around a mop and bucket in order to get there. Since I took this photo this part of the station has been partially walled off.
 

Montgomery Street Station plaque

 
Montgomery

Serves: BART, Muni Metro

On weekdays everyone at Montgomery is in a hurry to get to or from their office jobs in the Financial District or SOMA, yet on weekends it’s practically a ghost town. The plaque is easy enough to find, it’s right next to one of the entrances on the ticketing level.
 

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Powell

Serves: BART, Muni Metro

San Francisco’s downtown is the Union Square neighborhood, and this is the closest station. As such it’s often overrun with tourists and shoppers at any given time. The station features two entrances directly into the basement of the Westfield SF Centre mall, as well as now barricaded off exits into other basements, and a half-completed pedestrian tunnel to Yerba Buena Gardens.

I spent enough time wandering through the station’s corridors to find a plaque but came up empty handed. My guess is it’s in one of the parts of the station currently closed off for construction.
 

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Civic Center/UN Plaza

Serves: BART, Muni Metro

Once again I came up empty handed. If the plaque’s still there it’s probably either hidden behind something — the bicycle storage area for example — or is in one of the underground corridors recently sealed off for good.
 

16th Street Mission Station plaque

 
16th Street Mission

Serves: BART

Even BART employees often incorrectly refer to this station as “16th and Mission,” which makes sense as it’s located at that intersection. But no, it’s called “16th Street Mission.”

This plaque is pretty easy to find as it’s right next to the escalator leading out of the station on the southwest side.
 

24th Street Mission Station plaque
 
24th Street Mission

Serves: BART

Almost everything that can be said about 16th Street Mission applies here as well as the two stations are nearly identical, including the placement of the plaque.

The easy way to tell the difference between the two stations is the color of the tiles.
 

Glen Park Station plaque

 
Glen Park

Serves: BART

This BART station is a good example of Brutalist architecture, with bare concrete and simple, functional forms. Unfortunately it hasn’t aged well in part due to a lack of maintenance — I’m sure it looked a lot nicer back in the day when BART had a budget for maintaining their plants and gardens.

The plaque at Glen Park is in the small outdoor plaza; not the most obvious place to look.
 

Balboa Park Station plaque

 
Glen Park

Serves: BART, Muni Metro

Going south this is the last BART station in San Francisco. It’s a sprawling mess of a station that also serves Muni Metro in the most disjointed way possible.

The plaque is again outside the station, near the bus stop on the street outside. I had to wait for a guy to finishing peeing on the wall before taking this photo. Perhaps the station could use a bathroom.
 

So we’re done now, right? Not so fast — we covered all the stations that are served by BART in San Francisco, but there are three more BART stations… sort of. BART built the entirety of the Market Street subway, including the stations only served by Muni Metro. So, let’s continue on!
 

Van Ness Station plaque

 
Van Ness

Serves: Muni Metro

While BART’s subway bends from Market to Mission, Muni Metro continues straight under Market. Van Ness is the first station in that direction only served by Muni Metro.

This plaque is tucked away in a corner above a drinking fountain in the paid area of the station.
 

Church Street Station plaque

 
Church Street

Serves: Muni Metro

Continuing along Market, Church is the station where the two platforms switch from a shared center platform to two side platforms, to the confusion of many passengers.

The plaque at Church Street can be found near the entrance on the north side of Market Street.
 

Castro Street Station plaque

 
Castro Street

Serves: Muni Metro

The final station under Market Street is Castro. It’s the only station with a curved platform, so please mind the gap. Back in the day streetcars would exit from the Twin Peaks tunnel onto the surface of Market Street, but that all changed in the early 80’s when the streetcars were replaced with light rail and were re-routed underground.

This plaque is just inside the paid area on the outbound side.
 

For the sake of completeness I visited Forest Hill and West Portal to see if they had any plaques. Neither of these were built by BART. Forest Hill is the oldest subway station in the city still in operation, dating back to 1918. While I couldn’t find any plaques inside, on the outside the words “Laguna Honda Station” are chiseled in stone on the front of it, reflecting the original name. Not really a plaque.

Although not really a subway, the current incarnation of West Portal Station was built around the same time as BART. The only plaque I could find were commemorative plaques about the original station, when it was just a pair of streetcar stands outside the tunnel entrance.

There is one defunct subway station, Eureka Valley. No idea if there’s a plaque down there as it’s not open to the public, though you can see the remains of the station between Castro and Forest Hill (it’s much closer to Castro.)
 

So there you have it. I don’t think anyone’s ever gone to every subway station in San Francisco for the purpose of hunting down plaques but feel free to correct me if I’m wrong. I’d also be curious to know if anyone out there has been able to find the Powell and Civic Center plaques.

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A ride on San Francisco’s boat tram

August 23rd, 2019


 

On Wednesday I mistakenly clicked on bookmark to streetcar.live, an online map displaying the current locations of each of San Francisco’s historic streetcars that are currently running. Before I had a chance to close the tab, I noticed something unusual: one of the Blackpool “boat trams” was running! I decided to take a long lunch and go for a ride.

There are two of these unusual boat trams in the fleet. They’re roofless, windowless streetcars (or “trams” for non-Americans) with a certain whimsical appeal. They’re not very practical since they can only operate on warm days when there’s no chance of rain. Though I’m not sure who came up with the “boat tram” name, I think they missed the opportunity to call these vehicles “railboats.”

Unbeknownst to me Muni has been running these all summer on Tuesdays and Wednesdays between the Ferry Building and Pier 39. Normally the boat trams are only trotted out during special events, or for chartered rides.

In the video above I filmed the entire ride to Pier 39, sitting in the very front seat. Maybe not the best spot in terms of cinematography, though you can see a number of local sights along the way and an encounter with a Muni supervisor.

I also took a few photos before and after the ride:
 

Boat Tram Boat Tram Boat Tram Boat Tram

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“Save Harvey Milk Plaza” written in dust

June 3rd, 2019

Save Harvey Milk Plaza
 

Yesterday while walking through Church Station I noticed the renovations there were winding down, and behind the semi-demolished storage area someone had written SaveHarveyMilkPlaza.org in the dust on the orange railing.

This is a reaction to proposed changes at Castro Station, the next station outbound from Church. The plaza on the south side of the station was dedicated to Harvey Milk back in 1985, and hasn’t changed much since. Muni intends to make some changes to the plaza to address ADA compliance issues, which somehow ballooned into a complete overhaul of the plaza. Two years after deciding to make big changes, the architectural firm they’ve hired still hasn’t settled on a final design.

The people behind the the aforementioned “save the plaza” website would prefer making minimal changes to the plaza, although even they have some ideas to improve it, like installing murals, AIDS memorials, and other historical links to the area. The groups who want to replace vs. restore Harvey Milk Plaza may have more common ground than they think; both want a nice subway entrance at Castro and Market, and both agree that some changes are necessary.

For my part I don’t have any particularly strong opinions about whether the plaza should be renovated vs. replaced, mainly because I don’t really like the idea of transit plazas in the first place. Just look at the 16th and Mission BART plaza or the Powell Station sunken plaza by the cable car turnaround — nobody would argue those are excellent uses of public space.

Fortunately Harvey Milk Plaza is significantly smaller and doesn’t suffer from the same problems, but it’s not perfect either. For my part I’d advocate for making the following changes.

First, the above ground portion of the plaza isn’t well integrated into the bus stop along Market Street. In part this is due to the geography of the area, but the bus stop is on a narrow part of the sidewalk and is located a ways back from the main plaza entrance. One way or another this should be addressed.

Second, the plaza’s maintenance is an embarrassment. The sunken garden part of the plaza was fenced off and abandoned long ago, the exposed concrete is dirty and covered in streaks of rust, etc. A new plaza alone isn’t going to address this issue — or could make matters worse if it’s designed without a maintenance plan and a budget to accompany it.

There is a certain irony of course in advocating against certain changes by scrawling in a thick layer of dust to reveal a 1970’s orange paint job. Then again, if they’d simply written “WASH ME” I might not have taken the time to write this blog post.

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Muni Metro updates its subway audio announcements

September 14th, 2018

Hear the new announcements for yourself in the above video I recorded at Church Station. Please forgive all the background noise, it’s a subway station after all.

 

Recently Muni Metro has been undergoing somewhat of a renaissance, from the new light rail trains to the colorful real time information signs to the upcoming Central Subway.

Another recent Muni Metro upgrade hasn’t made any headlines — the new automated voice announcements at the subway stations. Like the previous version of the announcements they begin with two piano notes representing inbound vs. outbound, but now the outbound voice is male. The inbound voice remains female.

Both voices sound significantly more natural and less choppy than what they replaced. The previous female voice spoke in a halting rhythm with uneven tonality, which gave the announcements a robotic quality. This video (not mine) has some good examples. That announcement voice replaced a different choppy female voice sometime in the mid 2000’s. Many of us jokingly referred to these voices as “Ms. Muni” back in the day, as in “hey grab your backpack, Ms. Muni says our train’s arriving.”

They’ve also added information about where the arriving train is headed. For whatever reason the previous announcements confusingly only included the destination for inbound trains, and only the route designation letter on outbound trains. Why make this change? To make a long story short, Sunnydale will presumably flip from the T-Third’s inbound destination to its outbound destination when the Central Subway opens. The new announcements ought to streamline this transition.

Additionally the new announcements dropped the practice of saying the route destination letter twice for a two car train. No more “two car, L. L. in five minutes.” The reason for these pecular announcements was largely historical, as Muniverse explains:

When both Muni Metro and the Market Street Subway openend, [sic] one and two-car trains were coupled into three and four-car trains as they entered the subway at West Portal and the Duboce & Church tunnel portal. It was a problematic workaround to deal with tunnel capacity problems before the Market Street Subway was completely computerized.

In other words Muni Metro’s audio announcements finally entered the 21st century. It’s about time.

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First impressions of the new Muni Metro trains

June 14th, 2018

New Muni Metro train in service
New Muni Metro train in service New Muni Metro train in service
 

This evening I’d planned to take Muni Metro home from work as I often do, but there was an unexpected twist: as I got to the platform level, one of the new trains was pulling in. Finally I’d get to ride one! Unfortunately for me it was going in the opposite direction I was headed, so I only took it one stop just for fun.

Some background: The new trains cars are Siemens S200 light rail vehicles (LRVs) which are slowly replacing the 90’s era Breda LRVs. The Breda’s weren’t always the most reliable, especially their door mechanisms. With the new subway line opening (maybe) next year Muni thought it would be a good idea to start ordering new train cars sooner rather than later, and to have narrowly-defined reliability requirements in the contract. So that’s how we wound up with these new Siemens S200 train cars. Muni calls this new fleet “LRV 4” for some reason they haven’t explained as far as I know.

In my brief ride today, here’s a few things that immediately stood out:

  • The exterior is a little boxier looking than the current Breda LRVs but otherwise looks pretty similar. The color scheme is nearly identical.
  • These are very quiet trains, which has been par for the course in major European cities for a while but is new to SF.
  • The seating arrangement is more like a typical subway with benches along the walls rather than two-across bus-style seating. This should leave more standing room during rush hour.
  • Onboard audio cues sound different and may take some getting used to.
  • The Clipper card readers have a new design.

But the biggest difference? This one’s impossible to ignore:

New Muni Metro train in service
 

In the middle of the train is a live display with the destination, the next couple of stops, and the transfer points for the next stop. Hopefully they keep this up to date as bus routes change. There’s also an argument to be made that “Cable Car” should be more specific since there are multiple lines. But that’s all nitpicking, overall the new display is a massive improvement.

That’s all I have for now. In the future I may have some deeper impressions to share, particularly on street level stops when the stairs come down.

If you’d like to try the new Muni Metro trains SF Transit Riders has a live map of their locations here.

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Muni Murals outside Laguna Honda

May 7th, 2017

About a year ago, the wall facing Forest Hill station at Laguna Honda hospital got the mural treatment. Today I (finally) found myself over there and decided to check it out. Among other aspects, the mural features two fun depictions of Muni over the years that connect the past with the present.

First, here’s a Muni trolley exiting Twin Peaks tunnel at West Portal. This represents the original West Portal station, a glorified bus stop with a facade that looks similar to those of the old piers along the Embarcadero.

Muni Murals

 

The second Muni-themed part of the mural depicts a modern Muni Metro LRV heading to the nearby Forest Hill station. Once known as Laguna Honda Station, it’s the oldest San Francisco subway station that’s still in use today. Regular Muni Metro riders can identify the station’s platform level in the mural by the checkered pattern on the wall. Or you might recognize it from a certain Clint Eastwood movie.

Muni Murals

 
“But wait,” is the question I doubt anyone would ask, “Which Clint Eastwood movie that takes place in San Francisco could you possibly be referring to?” Well, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for the next blog post to find out. Try not to let the suspense kill you!

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The Cable Car Museum

April 3rd, 2017

Some museums require a complicated explanation about how to get there; not so with the San Francisco Cable Car Museum. Both of the Powell Street lines stop outside of the museum, and the California Street line has a stop a few blocks away.

Despite living in San Francisco for almost a decade and a half, I’d never visited the Cable Car Museum, and decided on a whim today to pay a visit.

Most of SF’s tourist attractions fall into one of two buckets: a horrid tourist trap (Pier 39, Grant Avenue in Chinatown) or are actual gems that you shouldn’t miss (Telegraph Hill, Musee Mecanique, Cliff House.) The Cable Car Museum, I’m happy to report, falls into the latter category. That said there’s not much to the museum itself. The real show here is watching how the cable car system works.

I suspect an average tourist doesn’t give much thought as to how cable cars work — it’s just a weird old wooden train with a bell, right? Just like a big version of Mr. Rogers’ trolley? Anyone with that notion will be in for a shock if they visit the museum and watch the motors pulling the cables. More on that in a moment.

The Cable Car Museum is free to visit and is open most days. There are bathrooms open to the public, and of course a gift shop with books and trinkets. Much of the museum consists of panels explaining the history of the system, how it was invented, etc. Most of these factoids you could just as easily find on Wikipedia.

The most interesting of these exhibits explain in detail how the mechanisms that power the cable cars work, for example the grip and the truck pictured below.

 
Cable Car Museum Cable Car Museum
 

Another cool feature are the old cable cars. Did you know that at one time they had two cable cars hitched together? Or that ads on public transit apparently go way back further than you may have thought? These are the quirky little details you won’t find anywhere else.

 
Cable Car Museum Cable Car Museum
 

But like I said earlier, all of this is really secondary to what the museum is really about: seeing the mechanism that powers the cable cars up close. It’s like a factory tour in a way — the museum’s located inside the building that powers the entire cable car system in San Francisco.

Several enormous wheels spin a thick braided metal cable, one for each line. That cable is what the “grip” mechanism in each cable car latches to, which is what propels tourists between Powell and Market and Fisherman’s Wharf. Normally you can’t see those cables since they’re underneath the street, but here they’re in full view.

Apparently it’s some guy’s job to sit there watching the cables, checking for damage as they wiz by, and if there are any frayed bits they have to be repaired at night when the cable cars aren’t in service. While I’d assume this is the sort of job that could be easily automated, in the spirit of preserving a historical system maybe that would be cheating.

 
Cable Car Museum Cable Car Museum
 

In the basement of the building you can see the wheels that act as pulleys, tilting the cables into different directions for each line. Unfortunately it was too dark down there to get a usable photo.

A portion of the building is devoted to a machine shop. The cable cars are custom made, so if a part needs to be replaced it’s not like SFMTA can go on Amazon and order a new one. I spotted several fresh looking grip mechanisms sitting in one corner, ready to be installed as needed. Since it was a weekend there was unfortunately no activity in the machine shop. There might be more action to see if I’d visited on a weekday.

One last fact to mention here is the noise level. With the motors driving the giant wheels and the cables spinning around, this is not a quiet museum. Check out my very brief video below to look and listen to those motors in action.
 

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Nuni transit-themed street art hides secret messages

July 24th, 2015

Some unusual transit-themed street art has appeared around the city recently. Perhaps you’ve seen it? For example, I spotted this odd BART ticket (actually a sticker) a while back:

Nuni Bdank ticket
 

Today I stumbled across this unofficial ad at a Muni stop:

Nuni ad
 

A little googling revealed that these are the works of “Nuni,” who apparently goes by @therealnuni on Instagram.

The street art clearly contains some kind of hidden messages, seemingly written in an alien language. Obviously I had to crack the code.

My “aha!” moment was when I remembered playing Commander Keen as a kid, deciphering the Standard Galactic Alphabet on a piece of paper as I went. The Nuni “cipher” works the same way: it’s English words written in a different alphabet.

Cracking it is only a matter of finding a few common words and applying your hangman and/or Wheel of Fortune expertise to work backwards to discover the whole alphabet. The first thing to decode is the word “Nuni” itself:

Many of the messages are exactly what you’d expect them to be. For example, what does it say on a BART ticket in the blue box at the top? Yup, that’s what the encoded message says too.

I’ve managed to crack 21 out of 26 letters in the alphabet so far. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but if you get stuck feel free to shoot me an email — my address is in the sidebar.

Sincerely yours,

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class="post-3555 post type-post status-publish format-standard hentry category-local tag-cable-car tag-contest tag-muni tag-photos tag-san-francisco tag-videos">

52nd annual Cable Car Bell Ringing Contest

July 10th, 2015

Earlier today was Muni’s annual(-ish) Cable Car Bell Ringing Contest. What is a Cable Car Bell Ringing Contest, you ask? It’s a two-part contest where “amateurs” (non-Muni employees) compete, and a second part where cable car operators compete.

The rules for each part are very different. The amateur competition allows music, dancers, and apparently bribing the crowd with free Giants merchandise. This part takes place on a standalone bell outside the cable car.

The cable car operator competition takes place inside a cable car that was somehow transported to Union Square. This is the main part of the event, and only bell ringing is allowed. I’ve posted videos of the top two bell ringing champions below.

 

Coming in at second place, here’s previous champion Trini Whittaker:


 

Here’s first place winner Byron Cobb:

 
Finally, here’s a few photos from the event:

Cable Car Bell Ringing Contest 2015 Cable Car Bell Ringing Contest 2015 Cable Car Bell Ringing Contest 2015 Cable Car Bell Ringing Contest 2015